“People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep, they don’t care. They just don’t care.”
When you think of classic Westerns, several things jump to mind: epic gun fights, fast horse chases, and brave heroes with supernatural skills. High Noon, a 1952 Western directed by Fred Zinnemann (A Man for All Seasons, From Here to Eternity) and starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, turns this formula on its head. It spends much more time pontificating and talking about morals than showing us gun fights and chases, and the heroes of the story are (rightly) scared out of their minds and would rather avoid the confrontation altogether. This film takes its time laying out why these characters are the way they are, and exactly what they’re thinking in this hard situation. It was so different that career cowboy and genre poster boy John Wayne said it was “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” In a 1971 interview, 19 years after the film was released, he was still complaining about it. This isn’t exactly a fast-paced Western, and it’s definitely not a traditional classic Western, but the writing and acting in this were phenomenal and captivated me for the relatively short runtime (85 minutes).
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“Reminds me of that fellow back home that fell off a ten story building. As he was falling, people on each floor kept hearing him say, ‘So far, so good.’ ”
Sometimes remakes aren’t terrible. The Magnificent Seven, a 1960 American Western directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape, Gunfight at the OK Corral), is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese masterpiece Seven Samurai. It’s pretty much universally accepted that the original is a superior film; but this American remake is still a great movie—so much so that when Kurosawa saw the film, he sent Sturges a ceremonial Japanese sword as a gift. Today, this feels like a classic Western, but it broke enough of the classic Western customs that American audiences weren’t too crazy about it. Thankfully, it saw amazing success overseas, particularly in Europe, which would start producing hit “spaghetti Westerns” of its own just a few years later. But regardless of what style it is, this is a great Western film with excellent character development, thrilling action sequences, and an honest and hard look at the lives of the gunslingers of the Old West.
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“I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.”
There’s no film that embodies the term “cult classic” more than The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Directed by Jim Sharman (Shock Treatment, The Night, the Prowler) and starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Barry Bostwick, this delightfully deviant rock opera started showing in 1975 and saw its greatest success with midnight showings. Some theaters have been hosting midnight showings regularly since 1975, making this the longest theatrical release in history. This quirky film gathered a strong cult following and became a cultural phenomenon, and it’s widely regarded as one of the most successful independent films in history. Despite coming out in 1975 (with the original stage play coming out 1973), this is still sharper and edgier than most films being made today. It doesn’t really discuss controversial topics so much as celebrate them, and this is more fun than most other films from any era.
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“Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
2008 was a good year for superhero films. Iron Man put the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the map, and The Incredible Hulk followed later that year; Hellboy II was a surprise hit; we even got Hancock, an interesting take on the superhero genre (even though it wasn’t that good). But The Dark Knight came along and it made the rest of these films look like child’s play. Best superhero movie of all time is a hotly debated title now, but back in 2008, The Dark Knight was the undisputed winner. Directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar) and starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, this is a smart crime film and a competent action film in addition to a superb superhero film, and it, along with Iron Man, showed the world that superhero movies could have an appeal beyond comic book fans, being artful blockbusters in their own right. This is a brilliant entry in the superhero genre and it will be remembered as one of its great classics.
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“Listen, if you hate someone, you take the consequences.”
12 years before The Hunger Games became a worldwide hit, the Japanese film Battle Royale did the same thing, but with a more assertive stance. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku (Fall Guy, Crest of Betrayal), who turned 70 years old during the production of the low-budget ultra-violent film, this was a story so controversial that the Japanese parliament tried (unsuccessfully) to get both the novel and the film banned, and Germany actually did get the film banned for quite some time. But this film is more than just senseless stylized gore—there’s some intelligent plotting and well-developed characters here, and a great point underneath it all. For one reason or another (it’s actually disputed why), this film didn’t see any sort of release in America until very recently when it hit Netflix, so this film became an underground cult classic among hipsters and film buffs lucky enough to get their hands on a copy. The film is far from perfect, but I really enjoyed the film and what it had to say.
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“He’s capable of a lot more than you know!”
Issues-based movies can be vital for the progress of the causes they portray, but many sacrifice plot and character development to focus on the issue, ironically hurting both the film and the cause. Rain Man is a great issues-based film that sacrificed nothing and was actually made stronger by its issue. Directed by Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, Toys) and starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, this film features a major character on the autism spectrum and gives us a good look at the disorder, both good and bad. Seeing as I knew almost nothing about autism until well past college, around 2003, this movie was years ahead of its time when it came out in 1988. If this film came out today, there would still be a majority of viewers who would learn something from it. Whether that’s a comment on how progressive this film was or how abysmal society is at understanding this condition isn’t for me to say. I will say that this is an outstanding drama in addition to being probably the best film about autism spectrum disorder, and it hasn’t lost anything in the 30 years since it came out.
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“He chose you, honey! From all the women in the world to be the mother of his only living son!”
Good horror movies seem to be a dying art. I grew up thinking I hated horror movies. It wasn’t until I went back to the classics that I discovered that I really liked some of them. The biggest change (aside from gratuitous use of jump scares) seems to be the transition from the power of imagination to bad CGI effects—no special effect will ever be as scary as what the brain can conjure based on context clues from other characters. Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski (Chinatown, The Tenant) and starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes, is a classic horror film that scares through restraint and subtlety, and what it doesn’t show is more terrifying than the special effects today, 50 years later. It’s also an exceptionally smart horror film, with a depth missing from most mass-market horror films today. Is this 50-year-old horror film worth watching today? Yes, absolutely.
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“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”
Movies about making contact with aliens ask a lot of different questions. What if they’re hostile? What if we’re hostile? What if they come to warn us? What if we can’t coexist? Close Encounters of the Third Kind asks and answers a much simpler question: wouldn’t it be cool? Director Steven Spielberg (E.T., Jaws) wrote the script to try to capture the mood of a childhood memory of him and his father going to see a meteor shower, and that childlike wonder shines through here. Unlike most sci-fi films, this doesn’t pose ethical dilemmas or ask us to consider the implications of modern society. This is more of a straight-up drama that uses sci-fi elements to elicit deep emotions of curiosity and wonder. It’s admittedly more of a kids film, but this is extremely well-done and can be a happy little escape from the harsh demands of the real world for adults as well.
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“Where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price. That is why the bounty killers appeared.”
For a very long time, America loved classic Westerns. In 1964, an Italian director shook things up with A Fistful of Dollars, an amazing Western that actually got noticed in America. In 1965, director Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) followed up on his smash hit with another amazing Western: For a Few Dollars More. Starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Gian Maria Volante (two of whom starred in the previous movie), this showed the world that Leone was more than a one-hit wonder and was one of the masters of this American genre. The first film of the trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars, had an excellent plot, and the third film in the trilogy, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, had superior atmosphere. For a Few Dollars More was right in-between. This sadly means it wasn’t quite as good at either of these things, making it something of a weak link in the trilogy. But the mixture of elements was excellent and this is, in many ways, the quintessential classic Western. It holds up very well today.
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“There’s never been a black cop in this city. We think you might be the man to open things up around here.”
There are a lot of films that are good, but far fewer that are both good and important: timely, thought-provoking, painfully honest, and still entertaining. BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) and starring John David Washington and Kylo Ren, is an entertaining film that really spells out how racism in America took its current form and went mainstream, starting in the 70s. The script is clever and it has some hilarious moments, some genuinely touching moments, and some suspenseful moments to keep it from getting dull. But the real genius of the film is how it tackles such a difficult and misunderstood topic and breaks it down and makes it easy to follow, tracing the idea’s lineage from years in the past to today. The blatant racism can be difficult to watch, but this film is undoubtedly one of the most important of recent years, especially in today’s political climate.
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